Raise your hand if you are often frustrated by historical films that use the excuse of ‘artistic license’ to misrepresent, or outright change, the actual facts. Surely I can’t be the only person who balks at those decisions–the fabrication might create a moment of emotional impact within the movie itself, but it was based in a lie, and is less valuable because of it.
But sometimes history isn’t enough. Sometimes altering it can create something that encompasses an era, makes a case for the volatile emotions of a generation, shows the solid ties that lie between politics, social upheaval, music and… Oscar Wilde?
What started off as a plan to make something approaching a David Bowie biopic with a very artistic flare became the SFF near-historical glam deconstruction, Velvet Goldmine. Yes, it’s that one where Ewan McGregor and Christian Bale have sex. And if that’s all you know about it, you’re missing out on one of the more interesting commentaries on art, identity, and the strange transition between the opulent exploration of the 70s and the conservative oppression of the 80s to be found on film or anywhere else.
It’s true that Velvet Goldmine was originally intended to be something biopic-like (in the loosest sense) about David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust years and what follows, but Bowie wasn’t too keen on the project–understandable as the script was, at most, 40% historically accurate–and also didn’t want any of his music in it. Necessity reared its head and changes were made. Lots of them. Music was lifted from Bowie’s contemporaries and friends, covers of Iggy Pop and Roxy Music were recorded, and some new glam rock was produced, courtesy of Shudder to Think.
It turned out that ditching the biographical aspects only strengthened the film. The main character is a David Bowie analog: Brian Slade (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who creates the space age rock frontman in the form of the blue-haired jumpsuit-wearing Maxwell Demon. But here the film takes a turn from metaphor to reality–real life fans talk of the day that Bowie “killed” Ziggy Stardust on stage at the Hammersmith Odeon, announcing that it was the last concert he would do. But Brian Slade stages an actual assassination, making his fans think he has been murdered in front of them. When they find out it was all a stunt the backlash is brutal, and Slade backs away into the shadows.
We are meant to get a sense of wonder from these game-changers like Slade, Jack Fairy, and Curt Wilde (an Iggy Pop-Lou Reed-Kurt Cobain fusion, played with startlingly accurate stage histrionics by Ewan McGregor) who terrify the masses and shake up the world with their hedonistic “art for art’s sake” ideas, but we are also meant to understand that being these people inevitably leads to self-destruction. That becoming a cultural symbol–no matter how clever or beautiful you are–is not a state for a living, breathing being, and therefore impossible to sustain. It begins with Oscar Wilde (intimated to be an alien child left on the doorstep of some poor Irish couple), the first of this kind, dropped from the sky to share a brand new type of art with the world. Making connections between the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the musician behind The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane feels like it should be a no-brainer, but the seamless blending of Wilde (non-)philosophy and Bowie-inspired performance art is a brilliant sort of revelation.
There is a deep sense of ennui embedded in Velvet Goldmine, an acknowledgement that something singular from those years of glam can never be recaptured. But unlike the rose-colored glasses that we often view the Flower Power generation through, the children of that early 70s revolution are not coated in the sugar of protesting and naive free love. These glitter-covered kids were never trying to change the world… only themselves, a theme echoed by Curt Wild at the film’s close. Even their messiahs could not carry on the tradition, wasted by a world that wanted rid of them.
It is the classic portrayal of glam culture, one that has a far deeper meaning than it is usually given credit for: the alien who does not belong among us, briefly worshiped and then barbarically cast aside in favor of other shiny things, disco fever and worldwide consumerism. It’s true of Ziggy Stardust and Dr. Frankenfurter, and the many musicians who embraced makeup and androgyny only to find that they would have to evolve or die just a few years down the road.
Commentary on the changes in society from the 70s to the 80s runs through the core narrative: Christian Bale’s Arthur Stuart is the character the story revolves around, an English reporter working in America in 1984, given the assignment to look into Maxwell Demon’s “death” for its 10th anniversary. Arthur would rather forget that time in his life and it’s hardly surprising: the 80s were not a time when the general population looked with understanding upon openly experimenting with drugs and bisexuality, and the freeing (and often horrific) act of exploring yourself so recklessly. He soldiers on, and his Citizen Kane-esque investigation leads him to big arena pop star Tommy Stone, who may—shockingly—be Slade’s new alter ego.
It’s an easy visual cue to spot for David Bowie fans: Stone is clearly a callback to Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” persona in the 1980s, the era when all of his music was specifically packaged for the MTV mainstream masses. But here we see something far more insidious. Tommy Stone appears to be American, and vocally supports “President Reynolds,” clearly a Reagan substitute in this alternate history. While Bowie never openly supported a presidential candidate or made any outward turns toward Republican politics, Velvet Goldmine is striving for the broader historical stroke: conservative government and assembly line machined music. Dangerous art of a bygone era juxtaposed with the built-from-the-ground-up pop idol. While there was a destructive element to Slade’s glam persona, we can all see that Maxwell Demon was a true expression of himself and what he saw in the world, worth much more than the robotic, bleach-blonde doll that replaced him. And because of that, there is a genuine feeling of loss accompanying Arthur’s journey–he is left with very little to reassure him.
Nothing except a strange green pin found on the swaddling clothes of an alien infant in the 19th century.
Whether the source of Wilde’s powers or his inspiration, the hope we’re left with is tangible and the nostalgia is nothing to snicker at. That song that makes you sway when it comes up on the jukebox, radio, or shuffle is not just a few minutes of throwback to your strange formative years. It is power contained in a reminder: time you spent knowing that the world could change if only you could find the right song. It is art for art’s sake, but also for the sake of everyone who pointed and laughed at your ridiculous haircut and unfortunate shoes. Maxwell Demon may have been shot on stage, but while he lived you were never alone, and the whole world knew it. Velvet Goldmine is a love letter to that feeling of belonging that music creates in all of us.
“An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” So Wilde says, and so Velvet Goldmine tells us. But its resonance betrays the truth: perhaps that would be a more peaceful manner of creation, but who would ever want to live in that world?